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Local Conservationists Work To Preserve Habitats

Bird habitat is dwindling, according to the Connecticut Audubon Society, and locally, town and private officials are aware of the need for its protection.

“Reclaiming existing fields and meadows for this once plentiful habitat is a big job,” said Newtown Forest Association (NFA) President Bob Eckenrode. He notes that migrating birds “have used our meadows as a stopping point to rest and refuel for their long journeys south,” and that these birds “once thrived on the meadows and brushy edge habitat along stone walls from our agricultural past.” The NFA is a private, nonprofit land trust.

The Audubon’s recently released “State of the Birds” report states, “Connecticut’s wide diversity of bird species is diminishing and is at risk of continued declines as habitats throughout the state suffer from neglect caused by a lack of conservation management.”

Conservation Commission Chairman Ann Astarita mentioned several steps the town has taken toward meadow preservation. Her commission oversees Newtown’s town-owned open spaces. Last year the High Meadow in Fairfield Hills was established as open space, and although the field where birds could potentially nest is hayed by farmers, Ms Astarita said, “We’re trying to work with the town and the farmer to establish bird habitat.”

She said, “We want to protect bird habitat” for species such as the bobolink, “which we have heard in the [High] meadow. We are trying to balance [habitat preservation] with agriculture/haying.”

Other areas in town also have mowing regimen. “We are working with the town to modify schedules if feasible,” she said.

Aware of wildlife and habitat needs, Ms Astarita hopes that as soon as next year “at least portions of meadows can be reserved for birds and pollinators; with meadows in existence, why not use them in ways beneficial to the environment?”

Mr Eckenrode is also conscious of meadow spaces. “We mow really early and really late to preserve habitat for ground nesting birds. We have bobolinks, so I know its working,” he said.

Another recent Conservation Commission document from October, 2013, “Habitat Management Plan — West and High Meadows,” states in its summary, “Meadows represent a vanishing natural resource … They have been deemed worthy of protection … by many environmental conservation groups including the Newtown Conservation Commission.”

Noting the area’s environmental features, the Conservation Commission document states that “As protected open space, meadows provide important ecological functions … The most significant of these functions include ecosystems “that are generally short lived.” The document mentions, “Without regular mowing regime, the meadows would be colonized by shrubs and trees.”

Mentioning meadows as bird habitat specifically, the document states, “Studies have shown that larger meadows foster more of Connecticut’s at risk species and as such, the value of protecting them is greater. For example, Eastern Bobolinks, a species of special concern, were observed in the grasses during breeding season ...”

View the complete document here.

Preservation efforts can take place on more than just town or land trust open spaces.

Ms Astarita said homeowners can encourage growth of wild flowers, and “if not birds, then at least pollinators can use them.” Mowing a yard that is several acres “reduces diversity,” she said, and suggested planting wild flowers, for example, to encourage butterflies, etc.

“It’s about encouraging people to look at options other than lawn,” she said, allowing natural growth to welcome more birds, native bees, “more options for wildlife to thrive,” she said.

Also noted in the Audubon report is an “increasingly large forest monoculture and a diminishing variety of birds” and “Sound conservation efforts can lead to improvements.” Read more at ctaudubon.org.

The NFA’s Greenleaf property was once a monoculture of grasses “not necessarily beneficial to a wider range of birds and insects.” But through NFA members’ stewardship, “it is now home to wider range of birds, insects and animals,” Mr Eckenrode said, adding, “The more diverse an ecosystem, the more balanced it becomes and this does not happen by itself. With a property, you inventory and see what’s there, what needs to be managed and what to enhance.”

Birds specifically need cover from prey, food, and shelter, and many of the NFA properties conduct maintenance with this in mind.

Regarding NFA properties, he said, “We assess natural resources and value they have to surrounding properties.” Some may have no meadows, but on the ones that do, “we try to maintain as viable for nesting songbirds and etc.” Regarding natural features of other properties, he said, “We think of water quality, some property is forested and we consider those areas.”

The good news, Mr Eckenrode said, is that “action is being taken to maintain selective meadow habitats by the NFA and some large field and meadow owners in town. The great news is we realize we can always do better.” Sharing land management information with neighbors and large property owners is “something we are happy to do,” he said. “The practices we employ can easily be adapted to smaller residential parcels,” he said.

Like the NFA, which is a private land trust, the town also has specific conservation measures, such as the Plan of Conservation and Development. Under the document’s heading Agricultural Integrity, the plan states, “Open spaces uniquely tied to Newtown’s character include Fairfield Hills’ High Meadow, the Queen Street agricultural fields, and Ferris Farm. Farming has a long history in Newtown and views of the fields and meadows are valued by Newtown’s residents.

“Having these open spaces preserved emphasizes Newtown’s commitment to fostering local farms and protecting them from development. These preserved parcels and others combine to preserve Newtown’s agricultural integrity.”

And under the heading Native Plant and Wildlife Preservation, the plan states, “Open space parcels provide important habitat for native plants and trees. In other parts of Newtown, large expanses of lawn are fostered. These lawns do not provide habitat (food, shelter, or breeding areas) for native plants, insects, or wildlife. Birds and bees are negatively affected by pesticides and herbicides that many people apply to lawns. Open spaces provide the essential habitat needed for the continued existence of native creatures.”

Also, “Species diversity is encouraged, and threatened or endangered species are provided habitat, such as breeding areas, food, and shelter. A diversity of open space landscapes fosters species richness and a biodiversity of plant and animal species,” as written in the conservation plan.

Contact the town’s land use office (see Newtown-ct.gov) for copies of the Meadow Management Plan, or view a link to the online version of Newtown’s Plan of Conservation and Development. Also, visit NewtownForestAssociation.org for more information on various open space properties.

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